Every team needs a character player — even during this analytics age
Sometimes it’s as if baseball has become all about analytics. It’s good to know there’s still a human side to the game. Even analytics-driven teams such as the Astros, Yankees, and Red Sox understand you need players with character who provide elements that can’t be measured with numbers.
These players not only do it between the lines but off the field. They generate good karma and help teammates relax, and act as mentors for younger players.
The Yankees, who traded two character players in Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann last season, signed Matt Holliday to be their DH during the offseason. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman’s decision to bring in Holliday was not only based on performance, but to provide a veteran influence who could get in the ear of a younger player.
Holliday has proven to be the perfect fit. He’s not a real vocal player, but he’s solid in every way. When Holliday does speak, everyone listens. The Yankees’ front office has been thrilled to find that Holliday is everything he was cracked up to be.
Wayne Krivsky, a longtime baseball executive with the Rangers, Twins, and Reds (for whom he was GM), has long been an advocate for the character veteran.
“It’s so important for the clubhouse,” said Krivsky. “You’ve got to take care of the clubhouse whatever your situation is. Of course you’d like the guy or guys to be able to play. I think you’re always looking for those types of guys, but they’re hard to find.”
For years, the Red Sox had players who fit the profile. The 2004 team had Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar. The 2007 team had Mike Lowell. The 2013 team had David Ross and Ryan Dempster. For years they had David Ortiz. What a hole he’s left in both character and performance.
The Blue Jays feel the void left by Edwin Encarnacion every day. There was no bigger, more respected player. The Twins have rebounded nicely to have a good year, but a year ago they desperately missed Torii Hunter.
Some of those strong Reds teams from 2010-13 had outstanding players in Todd Frazier, Joey Votto, and Brandon Phillips, but it was their acquisition of Scott Rolen in 2009 that started the process of bringing the team together. Rolen was that guy, that glue that held things together.
Damon and Ross stand out for me the most. Damon was one of those guys who just took it upon himself to take charge. If his teammates didn’t feel like engaging with the media, Damon was available every night to answer the toughest questions.
Ross was vital to the 2013 Red Sox pitching staff and to the team overall. He did the same when he went to the Cubs. Look at the Cubs while he was there last season and the Cubs this year. He left a tremendous void not only defensively, but also for the calming effect he brought to his teammates.
Theo Epstein felt after losing Ross, who retired after the 2016 World Series championship, that the Cubs would have enough leadership to absorb the departure. But it hasn’t quite turned out that way. Ben Zobrist provides it in some way. Jason Heyward does his part, but he doesn’t perform well enough to make a huge difference.
They are intangible assets. In Texas, Adrian Beltre is that guy, along with Mike Napoli. In Miami, Martin Prado is that guy. In Boston, it’s now Dustin Pedroia. Arizona has the quiet but respected Paul Goldschmidt. The Rockies have Charlie Blackmon. The Mets have Curtis Granderson. The Blue Jays have Josh Donaldson. The Cardinals have Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter.
“Quality guys do a lot of things to enhance the clubhouse,” said Rays first base coach Rocco Baldelli, who was a veteran leader during his playing days. “Some set an example for the rest of the group. Others keep the confidence level up and convince players they’re better than what they are. They can help the staff by talking to and teaching some players, and also holding other players responsible in ways that are difficult for a staff to do.”
It’s hard to find that type on the Brewers, Phillies, or Padres. Zack Cozart is emerging in Cincinnati. The Orioles have Adam Jones. The Nationals have the veteran presence of Ryan Zimmerman. Miguel Cabrera is looked up to in Detroit, as is Albert Pujols with the Angels. The Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw and Justin Turner. The Giants have Buster Posey.
Every team needs that someone, even during this analytics age.
WAITING IN THE WINGS
Brentz doing all he can for chance
You wonder how long the Red Sox can keep Bryce Brentz on the farm without taking advantage of his hot bat?
Pawtucket hitting coach Rich Gedman has done wonders with Brentz, and has now turned him into a major home run threat by introducing a toe-taping procedure. Brentz won the minor league home run derby, and now has 20 homers and 55 RBIs with a .275 average and a .885 OPS.
The right fielder has also started taking ground balls at first base. “I want to try to be as versatile as I can be,” Brentz said. “If I can help in that way, I want that to be an option.”
Brentz, 28, shot himself in the leg when a gun he was trying to clean went off and wounded him three offseasons ago. The Red Sox were down on him and it took him a while to get back in their good graces.
Brentz was a supplemental pick (36th overall) in the 2010 draft after the Sox lost Billy Wagner to free agency. It was the same draft that produced Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Matt Harvey, Drew Pomeranz, Chris Sale, Christian Yelich, and Noah Syndergaard.
Brentz was considered a power hitter with a very good outfield arm and big things were expected. He hit 30 homers at two Single A levels in 2011. But he has struggled with injuries throughout his career.
“It just took him a little longer,” Gedman said. “But he’s found something now that’s allowed him to time things better.”
“I think I’ve tried everything in the book with my swing but I just think everything is synched up to my toe tap now,” said Brentz. “I’m just trying to be an athlete in the box and I think it’s paying off. My problem in the past was always charging at the ball and this allows me to stay back and let the ball come to me.
“I feel confident in my approach so now it’s a matter of getting that chance again, but your body can’t be here and your head in the big leagues, so I have to keep myself focused on being down here.”
Did he ever consider calling it quits? “It’s just that I had so many injuries that it was hard sometimes putting a good month together and I wondered if I could just stay healthy for a while I might be able to do something. I’ve stayed healthy this year and good things have happened,” Brentz said.
“When I was taken off the roster I knew it would be tougher to get back up there, but that’s part of the process. You have to prove yourself again. I didn’t have a good spring. It was all on me.”
Could he help the Red Sox right now? “I could. You have to have confidence in yourself,” Brentz said. “I feel with the work I’ve put in and results I’ve had I don’t doubt it at all. I continue to work every day on getting better. However it ends up I’ll be fine with it, but the goal of every player down here is to get up there and stay up there. Hopefully it’s opened some doors for me.”
Apropos of nothing
1. Jerry Remy reports he’s “turning the corner” on recovery from lung cancer surgery. “They told me it would be 4-6 weeks and I’m right about the four-week mark right now,” he said. Remy will await medical clearance but said he hopes to be able to do some games on NESN in August. On the same team, we wish Guerin Austin a quick recovery from concussion symptoms that have kept her off the air.
2. Will Flemming is impressive as Pawtucket’s play-by-play announcer. He also doubles as a Spanish translator. His brother, Dave Flemming, is the voice of the Giants and has taken on ESPN game duties this season with rave reviews. Will could very well be the next Pawtucket announcer to go to the majors.
3. Last season John Farrell was 20 for 46 (43 percent) in managerial challenges. This season he is 8 for 24 (33 percent). The Twins’ Paul Molitor is 14 for 19 (74 percent).
4. Never realized that McCoy Stadium has about as much foul territory as the Oakland Coliseum. It’s the opposite of Fenway Park.
5. Six of the 10 teams currently in position for the playoffs were not in the postseason last year (Astros, Rays, Yankees, Brewers, Rockies, Diamondbacks), and four (Rays, Brewers, Rockies, Diamondbacks) had records under .500 at this time last season, including two (Rays, Diamondbacks) that were in last place in their division.
6. An interesting factoid put out by MLB: Entering play Thursday, there were 672 saves recorded in 1,415 games, a pace for 1,154, which would be the lowest percentage of games played with a save since 1987 when 971 saves (46.1 percent) were recorded in 2,105 games. In 2015, just two seasons ago, 53.2 percent of games played included a save, the second-highest percentage in history.
Updates on nine
1. Janet Marie Smith, architect, Dodgers — It’s expected that the Dodgers will loan her to longtime business partner Larry Lucchino for the purpose of overseeing the new Pawtucket stadium project. Smith worked with Lucchino on building Camden Yards and renovating Fenway Park. She also renovated Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota for the Orioles. At this point the PawSox are waiting for the legislature to vote in favor of the project at the Slater Mill site. The current plans are for the inside of the new ballpark to replicate Fenway. Lucchino has said he will give Rhode Island every opportunity to build on the site and is willing to negotiate. Lucchino also announced if something can’t be worked out, he will entertain other cities. Worcester, for one, is very interested. Would Rhode Island vote to lose the PawSox?
2. Rusney Castillo, OF, Red Sox — One scout who has seen him most of the season said, “He’s [Pawtucket’s] best player. He should be able to help a major league team at least as a fourth outfielder. The contract gets in the way but I wonder if there’ll be more dialogue with the Red Sox about assuming some of the contract in order to move him somewhere. He doesn’t belong in the minors.”
3. J.D. Martinez, OF, Diamondbacks — A bit surprised when Tigers GM Al Avila told me a big market never developed for Martinez. He was clearly the best hitter available, but most teams are looking for pitchers at this time of the year. Mike Hazen did a good job obtaining him and Avila got back three good young players.
4. Jose Bautista, RF, Blue Jays — While the Jays’ front office is split on whether the team should be broken up and traded away, Bautista could be in demand at the deadline because of his power and the fact that he’s still a pretty good outfielder with a good arm. Bautista has struggled at different times this season but feels there’s a lot left in the tank.
5. Pablo Sandoval, 3B, free agent — The Giants may have known Sandoval inside and out before signing him to a minor league deal, but it didn’t stop them from doing their due diligence on some off-field issues that Dave Dombrowski referred to when the Red Sox designated Sandoval for assignment. Dombrowski never elaborated, but we’ve since found out through a major league source that the “issues” have to do with a messy divorce and equally messy rift with his brother concerning his foundation. Those personal issues might have led to Sandoval’s demise as a player.
6. Sonny Gray, RHP, Athletics — The A’s are being methodical in trade talks with other teams to receive the biggest haul. The Yankees continue to say they will not give up any of their top prospects who are close to the majors in any deal. We shall see. The Astros, Dodgers, Brewers, and Cubs all seem to be in on Gray.
7. A.J. Ramos, RHP, Marlins — He will be traded soon as the Marlins seek a similar package of players they got in the David Phelps deal with the Mariners. Some believe Ramos’s best role is as a setup man. The Mariners gave up outfielder Bryan Hernandez and righthanded pitchers Brandon Miller and Pablo Lopez in the Phelps deal.
8. Asdrubal Cabrera, 3B, Mets — The Mets are trying to increase his value by having him play third base. The Mets believe the Red Sox are a good trading partner for Cabrera, but his time at third has been limited to one game back in 2007.
9. Jorge Mateo, SS, Yankees — A highly skilled shortstop, Mateo has played 26 games in center field for Double A Trenton. The Yankees believe Mateo’s speed could track down a lot of balls in the outfield.
From the Bill Chuck files — “Just sayin’ — Following action on July 23, 2016, David Ortiz was hitting .332 with 24 HRs and 81 RBIs.” . . . Happy birthday, Normar Garciaparra (44).
Baseball is all about tradition, and one of its best traditions — nicknames — is best found in the minor leagues. Four teams — the Florida Fire Frogs, Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp, Binghamton Rumble Ponies, and New Orleans Baby Cakes — changed their nicknames and logos for this season. You decide if they hit it out of the park.